Applying all the assets of seat-of-your-pants indie filmmaking with few of its deficits, British-born, L.A.-based filmmaker Ash has delivered a sinewy, disturbing sophomore work in “Pups.” Filmed under an unusual funding offer from Japan-based Team Okuyama (which ponied up the cash in October with proviso that Ash have pic in the can by the end of December), “Pups” gives off the energy of a movie shot on the run with few of the rough edges that typically dog such rapid-fire filmmaking. In the tragic wake of the latest in a stream of American school killings (pic preemed only 48 hours before the Littleton, Colo., high school massacre), this perceptive spin on the teen pic is destined to capture some controversy-driven distrib and public interest.
While the director’s impressive 1997 debut, “Bang,” obsessively observed a rough day endured by an Asian-American woman, “Pups” looks at what happens when a young teen finds his mom’s gun. Ash takes the kind of way-too-wise-yet-foolish youths whom filmmaker Larry Clark is fond of, sets them in an unnamed U.S. suburb (accents and some place names suggest the East Coast, though actual location shoot was in Chatsworth, Calif.) and finds out how much trouble they can get into when they play around with a Magnum.
Stevie (Cameron Van Hoy) is so TV saturated that he’s videotaping his own attempted suicide as pic opens. He can’t go through with it and discovers a more intriguing break from suburban hell — his mother’s poorly secured gun. Girlfriend Rocky (Mischa Barton) drops by to go off to school, and in a few brief moments it’s clear that their relationship is wedged in that unique early-teen position between puppy love and full sex.
It is this uneasy limbo that is pic’s deeper terrain, as we watch Rocky equally startled and seduced by the gun, followed by Stevie’s impulsive move to rob a bank on the way to school. Making it up each minute, Stevie becomes Clyde to Rocky’s Bonnie as he gathers the cash and nearly escapes — until local cops and the FBI roar up to the scene.
In a situation strongly recalling and deliberately updating “Dog Day Afternoon,” a pair of sympathetic antiheroes are stuck between a bank full of hostages and a conflicted hostage negotiator. In this case, it’s FBI man Daniel Bender (Burt Reynolds), who credibly insists that he wants no one hurt yet must deal with Stevie’s temper streaks, distrust of anyone over 15 and hidden vulnerability. Stevie, on his end, must contend with a bevy of hostages, ranging from a bitter, smack-talking, paraplegic Gulf War vet (Adam Farrar) and a hostile old man (Ed Metzger) to a neurotic, pesky bank manager (David Alan Graf), his calmer bank colleague (James Gordon) and a surprisingly helpful young woman named Joy (Darling Narita, star of “Bang”).
Usually turning left when it would seem to turn right, narrative builds tension through the element of surprise, and unnerves through a skilled sense of the absurd. When Stevie demands an interview with MTV’s Kurt Loder, Loder actually arrives to interview Stevie. Later, Rocky reminds us of her age as she blows bubbles, enchanting the male hostages. Underlying everything, though, is a sense of sadness — Stevie choked by his asthmatic condition, recalling his toy-gun-totin’ boyhood (with actual Van Hoy home movies) and confusing real life with TV and the movies.
The surprises continue to an all too predictable end, when Ash’s unconvincing urges for both romance and obvious agitprop get the better of his artistic instincts to resist explaining motives. Nothing, though, dissipates the film’s ability — too little in evidence among the current indie crop — to dramatize its ideas.
Van Hoy leads the way, with a startling, haunting film debut that matches pic’s sense of impulse, rage and humanism. Barton quietly suggests a smart girl who knows she’s in trouble but might find a way out. Besieged on all sides, Reynolds works against his character’s cliches and indicates that “Boogie Nights” was no fluke.
With a subversive turn, Farrar (bro of Leonardo DiCaprio) stands out among the hostages. Ash, with d.p. Carlos Arguello, puts the Steadicam on overdrive to prevent static action, and the crisp images and Bill Foster’s unnerving ambient sound of hovering copters enormously aid this low-budget powder keg.